Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

Your attention please!

As part of the department’s ongoing self-assessments, my friend and colleague Rebecca sat in on one of my World History sections yesterday. It was a good experience, and I learned something I might never have noticed about my own teaching otherwise.

We were doing peer review and workshopping of drafts for the second paper. I’ve been working with a rubric of the research and writing process that starts with a topic that is “freaking interesting,” leading to curiosity, leading to questions, leading to research, leading to answers, leading to new questions, leading to evolution of the topic … and so on until it’s time to report something out. So then the paper rubric is TOPIC, QUESTION, RESEARCH, FINDINGS.

Across all my classes this semester, this seems to be doing a particularly good job of lighting the light bulb that these papers are works of curiosity and discovery, not dull exercises mandated by an arbitrary authority. We had some of that in this class too. One of the students reluctantly volunteered its draft, afraid as usual to lose face. We looked it over together; it was a decent data dump (which for this student was a significant improvement). So I started asking questions. What’s your topic? What do you find interesting about it? The student started to explain difficulties it had had in finding direct reference to its area of concern in 1515. It turns out, that’s because it wasn’t something they were concerned about then in the same way we are now. They handled it this other way instead. I said, that’s freaking interesting! You figured something out – maybe that’s the paper! Then Rebecca said, sometimes it’s the holes in the evidence that are interesting – how can we figure out what was in there? Light bulbs all over.

A few other students started to join in the questioning. I made space in the draft document (I was projecting it up front from Dropbox) and wrote three sentences summarizing the topic and question as it had emerged from the discussion. I said, how’s this look? Game changer. I said, isn’t this just what you said? Yep. So I asked the rest of the class, what’s there to learn from this for the rest of your drafts? Get clear on what your topic is. Figure out what you’re curious about. Decide what your research shows you about that. What do you know, and how do you know it. Say those things!

We talked about the linear style of supporting a point with evidence, and the more elliptical style of walking around a topic looking at it from various perspectives, gaining understanding without necessarily bringing it to a particular point. This student’s project seemed to fit the latter style better. Again, light bulbs. Rebecca then picked up a cue the student had dropped in passing that opened up one of those strolls, a dimension of the topic the student had seen and noted without really thinking through. Light bulbs.

Throughout this, several other students were joining in with questions and observations. In a couple of cases I mentioned their topics and asked them what they were getting from the discussion that could help them with their work. We did several mini-versions of the topic / question / research / findings q and a. At the end I said, you can do this, right? And everyone gave a confident nod.

A good day at the office. OK, so what about attention? Well afterwards, Rebecca remarked that sitting in the back of the classroom had allowed her to observe how the students directed their attention, especially what they were doing on their laptops or other devices. She said the class started with only a few of the students apparently paying attention. As it went along, some of those dropped out and others dropped in. All of the class was tuned in at one time or another, but not all at the same time. And she said, I realized Carl doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t need them to pay attention the whole time. He just wants them to pay attention some of the time.

I cracked up, because she’s absolutely right, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought that through as an intentional practice. I’ve evolved that from seeing how classrooms work from both the student and teacher perspectives. Rebecca and I talked about the research showing that most people can’t sustain focused attention for more than 10-15 minutes. We can wish otherwise, but it’s never seemed like a hill worth dying on to me. So for important instruction like yesterday’s, I loop back through the same lesson again and again, reframing and retargeting it, calling in attention every once in awhile to bring the key points into focus. As long as the students tune in every so often, they’re going to get at least a corner of the lesson. And as Confucius said, if students can’t find the other three corners for themselves, the lesson isn’t worth teaching.

Going with the flow

I was about ten minutes late to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class today. I’m doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I’m not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation – the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we’re working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino’s Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of ‘internal Othering’, and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would ‘really start’ now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to ‘the front’. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the ‘leading’ group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.

What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.

Book-burning: Censorship, ideology, and dissent

– is the perfectly good title my Chair Karen invented for my contribution (in April) to the local library’s “Fighting the Fires of Hate” events associated with a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Museum. I’m to talk, roughly speaking, about Nazi banned / burned books, which is not what we’d call an area of expertise for me. What to do, what to do.

Well, at the moment we’re in the part of the evening semester where our students in the ‘bad writing’ class are leading discussion on genres of bad writing they selected and researched. (Assigning ~50 ideally genre-representative pages for class reading, which has been an adventure.) Last night, the group that picked Nazi banned / burned books (yes, I prompted, but gently) was up. They picked Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) as the focus of discussion, and assigned the first 50 pages. Missing the points of ‘genre’, ‘representation’, and ‘selection’ a little, but it’s a work in progress.

After about five minutes of show-and-tell that was beginning to wind down into mumbling and paper shuffling, Patrick and I sprang into action to encourage a practice and salvage a learning situation. We zeroed in on the scene right at the beginning where the soldiers are getting double rations because about half of them died that day, and started to play the ‘so what?’ game. Why might Hitler have thought that was bad? “Well, it depicts the realities of war!” What realities? “Lots of guys die and supplies are sometimes scarce!” Yes. So what? Does anyone dispute that? Lots of French guys died too, but they won the war and didn’t produce a famous banned book on the subject. “But the men are miserable!” Yes. So what? “The war sucks and they know it!” Yes. So what? “This scene might cause readers to think critically and question the war.” Yes. So what?

Things were moving along, but the analysis was sticking on the idea that this was a starkly realistic and sensible portrayal of the war, and that was the problem. So we said, let’s take context seriously and accept for a moment that this was banned at a time (right away, 1933) when every adult knew already how tough war was. Millions of people died in the Great War less than 20 years earlier, nearly a million at Verdun alone. Hitler knew it, the Nazis knew it, Remarque knew it and everyone else knew it, many because they lived through it, if nothing else because they lost some relatives. Everyone did. There was absolutely no news in the losses and privations of war. So, what’s the problem? … Anyone?

OK, let’s notice that we agree with Remarque’s soldiers, and his implied perspective. We take for granted that war is factually hell, that lots of casualties are factually a problem, that supply breakdowns are factually a hardship. We sympathize with the soldiers’ bleak stoicism and opportunistic appetites. So instead, let’s imagine Hitler writing that scene, using the same facts. Half the guys die, the other half pig out on the extra supplies. What’s his take on this? How’s he feel about German soldiers whining about food and wolfing down the rations of the honored dead?

I swear that the room echoed with an audible click.

So we went through another round of ‘so whats’ that got us to something like an accurate account of Nazi ideology re: glory, honor, sacrifice, striving, progress, the Fatherland, in the process of which we drew in the next section of the text, in which ignorance, the hectoring of Kantorek the schoolmaster, and the pressure of peers and social expectations account for all those young ‘volunteers’, not a heroic sense of duty and indomitable Aryan will. So clearly Hitler and the Nazis were all about propaganda – all about clouding the minds of the young with high-sounding lies. All that work and we’re back to what everyone knows already about those Nazi scum, that they were ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies.

Back to context. Before class I’d pulled up on my tablet the University of Arizona’s Banned Books, 1932-1939 page (#4 on the Google search of ‘nazi banned books’ and found, but not used, by our student presenters). When it became clear that the analysis had gotten stuck again I read from “12 Theses Against the Un-German Spirit: A Propaganda Campaign of the German Students’ Association (Twelve Book-burning Slogans), as printed in the Voelkischer Beobachter, April 14, 1933:”

6. We wish to eradicate lies, we want to denounce treason, we want for us students, institutions of discipline and political education, not mindlessness….

8. We demand of the German students the desire and capability for independent knowledge and decisions.

So, we have a hypothesis that the Nazis were busily spreading lies and eradicating mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. And we have a passionate Nazi demand to eradicate lies and spread mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. Is the hypothesis supported? Should we at least consider the possibility that the Nazis actually believed they were in possession of a truth that any mindful, independent thinker would freely embrace, and that it was their opponents who were the ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies? Whose books were not just conveniently, but righteously burned?

There was more, but that’s the gist. And thanks to my students I now know, I think, what I’m going to be doing at my library talk.

Imagination, identification, and learning

We’re often told that we learn best from people ‘like us’, with whom we share a bond of identification. Along the fortified borders of identity work this is supposed to mean the big trouble categories like gender, race, and class.

I’m not going to dispute the premise, or even its vulgar applications. Clearly some women learn better from women, some working class kids learn better from teachers who share that background, and so on. Also, some white boys learn better from other white boys, which is where the liberal fantasies attached to the empirical observation run into trouble. Because we very much want white boys to learn from women and people of color, don’t we. And we also don’t want white boys to be the only ones who can see past the ends of their own noses. Nor, of course, do we want our Gen Ed business or engineering or nursing students to come out the other side of our classes still thinking of history, literature and philosophy as the wonky preserves of impenetrable weirdos.

We’ve got to learn more broadly, not less, and that means we need to construct our identifications more broadly, not less. I’m not saying anything Anthony Appiah didn’t already take for granted when he was 6. But he and I have led charmed lives that immediately enabled a more inclusive imagination about who and what is ‘like’ us enough to learn from. I was lucky to have Gerald Durrell, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, and The Hobbit around when I was a kid. It never occurred to me you couldn’t learn from turtles, spiders, rabbits, and trees. Deliberation, patience, loyalty, and taking the long view, among other things.

I get that enabling a broader imaginative identification is more of a struggle for some folks. But still I’m fascinated that a culture busily churning out learning aids for children and imaginative entertainments peopled by plants and animals can also produce self-evident garbage about the identity-matching of teachers and students. Even that old bastard Kipling understood, in his hierarchical and racist way, that we can learn just fine from the Other. And I get that the discourses of identity and representation can be important leverage to open up spaces in education and society for people who are otherwise excluded. I get that there’s something existentially horrifying and materially disabling about a whole educational career that dramatizes the exclusion of people ‘like you’ from the positions of authority and status.

But that’s a devil’s bargain, a desperate shortcut. That ‘like you’ is a trap. The problem is not that ‘we’ are not represented in the world of learning. The problem is that we conceive ourselves too narrowly, and so we learn much less than we could, and should.

OK, so how does this cash out in my practice? Well, I can’t just come at my classes with exhortations to engage imaginatively with the Otherness of the past. They get plenty of scolding about their limitations; those just push them deeper inside their shells. And I’m certainly not going to do a little lecture in which I assure the black lesbian women that we’re more alike than they think. We are, but we’re not there yet. As always, imaginative identification has to be constructed, it can’t just be asserted by fiat.

A lot of what I do is just sidestep the whole issue of categorical identification. I don’t think it’s an issue, so I don’t make it one. I grant that the past is uninteresting (we have no ‘interests’ in it) to disable the usual defenses, then jump right in with intriguing material that’s obviously more complicated than that. Curiosity does the rest – it has to, unless you want to get into a mutually demeaning disciplinary regime of constant prodding and quizzing. But curiosity has to be enabled, which is where a classroom practice heavy in recursive questioning comes in. Every answer raises three more questions, and the mystery gets deeper the more of it we solve. This is not just process, it’s payoff, but there’s a big nut to crack here – our students have now been trained by several generations of positivistic educational assessment to think there needs to be a definite answer for an upcoming test. So here’s a place to talk about answers being more or less ‘robust’ rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but that’s another post.

So what’s the answer? I’m still finding out. But with some robustness I can say that anyone can be interested in anything by anybody as long as curiosity is engaged. And what engages curiosity is a kind of ignorance that’s readily fixed by finding out, plus an environment in which good questions are valued and good answers lead to more good questions.

Which is the gift?

Today a student came in to my office to talk with me about its final paper. It actually had a finished copy of the paper, along with what seemed to be a gift bag with nice tissue embellishments.

I thanked it for the bag and put it aside, remarking that I would open it when the student was no longer my student. Then I took the paper and began to look it over. Meanwhile the student, glowing with pride and accomplishment, told me the story of how the paper came together – how, in thinking about how to synthesize its first two papers it had poked at a little research, found something unfamiliar, followed it up, found something fascinating, followed it up, and ended up with something that was dramatically richer and more interesting than anything it had ever done before.

This student thought gen ed World History was going to be an unpleasant waste of its time, and was initially put off by my loopy, open-ended style. This is the student who later said that the class made it realize it had not known how to think critically.

I looked the paper over. It was well-written and full of research and thought. I could see I was going to learn things I didn’t know. I asked the student what the main theme of its new understanding was. What it told me was terrific but only tangentially stated in the first paragraph, which was otherwise excellent, so I suggested it make its point more explicit and review the paper one last time for focused development of that point. The last edit that goes from A- to A.

Christmas has come early for this teacher. I really don’t care what’s in the bag.